“Habits are the compound interest to personal development.”
– James Clear
You know that one little pesky habit that you want to break?
I have the step by step process to break a bad habit—that actually works.
Most posts about how to break a bad habit will give you hacks and solutions focusing only on the action to take.
But my process is different.
How do I know?
Because it works.
I know this works because I’ve done a ton of research and studied all things habits. And more importantly, I’ve used it in my life.
It’s the process that’s always missing in other blog posts.
If you want to listen instead of read, here’s the podcast episode that goes along with this post — Breaking Bad Habits.
Okay, let’s get started! Here’s the process to break a bad habit…
Step 1: Become Aware Of Your Bad Habit
The first step is to become aware of your bad habit.
Do you have a glass of wine every night?
Are you addicted to watching The Office when you get home from work every day?
What Is A “Bad Habit”?
When I say “bad habit” I’m referring to using something external to change how you feel emotionally, to your own detriment.
A bad habit has a net negative consequence.
Drinking too much then having a hangover the next day. Eating too many cookies then having an upset stomach and gaining weight.
The most common examples of bad habits are:
Take a look at your life. What are you over-ing that is negatively effecting your future?
You can also call this “buffering” or “escaping.” The reason it’s buffering or escaping is because—whether you realize it or not—you’re doing this bad habit to avoid feeling negative emotion.
So, take a look at your life and find that one bad habit where you’re feeling stuck in. Get clear and honest with yourself about your bad habit.
Once you know what your bad habit is, and you’re aware of it, the next step is to become aware of triggers.
What Are Triggers?
Every habit has 3 parts:
The trigger is the circumstance that causes you to think a thought, that generates a feeling, that causes you to do your bad habit.
Start to pay attention to what you think right before you engage in the bad habit. Awareness is everything!
For example, let’s say you’re in the habit of having wine every night. The trigger is getting home from the job you don’t like. So, you start noticing what you think about your job when you get home from work. You might have the thought, “I deserve a better job. I’m overworked and underpaid.” This causes you to feel self-pity or entitled. To avoid feeling the negative emotion, you seek something that feels good, wine.
You are naturally wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This is totally normally and how everyone operates. Here’s why…
Step 2: Take A Look At Your Brain
Your brain will always seek pleasure, avoid pain, and aim to be as efficient. It’s called the motivational triad.
When you experience any type of pain (physical or emotional), your brain tries to eliminate it. It will seek pleasure.
This is a survival mechanism. It was great in the day when cave people were trying to stay alive.
It’s not great in modern times when it applies to negative emotion.
What’s happening now is that we’re escaping negative emotion instead of learning how to process it. And to do it, we’re picking up all our bad habits.
When we’re stressed from work, we overeat. When we go through a breakup, we overspend. When we fail, we overdrink.
The stress, sadness, and failure are all negative emotions we’re trying to avoid.
When you see pleasure in this way (examples: eating a bunch of sugar or condensed flour or watching pornography), your brain gets an extreme dopamine hit and wants more.
This is a false pleasure.
False pleasure is when you introduce excessive amounts of something unnatural to your brain and it has a reaction to it that it’s not evolved to accommodate, and therefore has a negative consequence in your life.
For example, wine is concentrated grapes. When you drink wine, your brain gets a huge dopamine hit and thinks it’s very important for your survival. Therefore, you drink wine at the expense of other things.
It’s artificial. Your brain thinks it’s amazing.
Same with sugar. Same with drugs.
It buffers you from reality.
Then, when you eat regular, natural, whole foods, you won’t get that same dopamine hit. Your brain wants the more extreme version from the foods with more sugar because that’s what you’ve introduced it to.
Naturally, your brain should get the dopamine hit from eating berries or apples. But if you’ve been eating junk food (or consuming other concentrated forms of sugar), you’ve trained your brain to seek way more dopamine than it needs. This applies to sex and porn, too. It applies to everything that you’re over-ing. You need more of it to get the same level of satisfaction.
Here’s the truth: you don’t need this much pleasure.
Step 3: Put Your Guard Up
Advertisers know how your brain works.
Advertisers are constantly bombarding you with ads that aim to make you feel better. They want you to eat more, drink more, and spend more.
Advertisers’ sole purpose is to get you to believe that whatever they’re selling will make you feel better.
The truth is, real well-being comes from within and can’t be found from anything external.
The more you purchase, the more you purchase. The more you eat, the more you eat. The more you watch porn, the more you watch porn.
Pleasure begets pleasure.
We think we can always escape negative emotion because it’s so available to us.
Step 4: Understand Why You Can’t Just Stop
All habits provide an apparent “benefit” to your brain—it’s some sort of pleasure. Therefore, it’s difficult to stop cold turkey. You’ll likely shift to another pleasurable (albeit, bad) habit.
For example, if you overeat when you’re stressed, and decide to stop, you may in fact stop, but then you’ll pick up another bad habit in its place, like overdrinking. So, instead of binge eating at night, you’ll have more wine.
I remember when I stopped eating sweets, this is exactly what happened. Instead of chocolate, I started drinking more wine. It was very subtle, but it was my “treat” in the evening. Really, it was a way for me to escape negative emotion—it came from a place of wanting to indulge or reward myself with pleasure after having a long day.
Pay attention to how you’re escaping negative emotion.
Until you learn how to experience negative emotion, you will always use bad habits as a way to buffer or escape.
I dated someone who was newly very successful. The stress he experienced was something he didn’t know how to handle yet. To cope, he would overeat constantly. And if he wasn’t overeating, he was over-screening. He constantly had to be stimulated by screen time or food to a level I had never seen before.
Imagine being able to experience negative emotion without needing to seek external pleasures to number it. Imagine if you got really good at this.
You can do this.
And the secret to doing it is to practice experiencing negative emotion and allowing urges.
Step 5: Practice Experiencing Negative Emotion And Allowing Urges
If you want to break your bad habit without picking up another external, pleasurable habit, you’ve got work to do.
Enter: experiencing emotion and allowing urges.
How To Experience A Negative Emotion
The next time you experience a negative emotion, notice what and where the feeling is in your body. Name it.
A feeling is a vibration in your body.
(I’m using feelings and emotions as synonyms for purposes of this post.)
With any feeling, you can either: 1) react, 2) avoid, 3) resist, or 4) experience it.
For example, someone yelling is resisting the emotion of anger. Anger is just a vibration in your body.
If you’ve been in the habit of experiencing certain emotions consistently, you won’t even notice that a thought caused it. The emotion will have become a habit.
So, how do you experience the negative emotion?
First, you stop doing the bad habit.
Second, you notice the negative emotion and be with it instead of resisting, avoiding, or reacting to it.
Stopping the bad habit is easy. You just stop. Experiencing the negative emotion that comes next is what’s challenging.
Start by noticing what you’re feeling. Separate yourself from the feeling. Become the watcher of your feelings.
As you practice breaking your bad habit, you will have the urge to do it.
Practice allowing the urge without giving in.
Fun fact: the worst that can happen is you experience a negative emotion.
What’s so bad about negative emotion anyways?
It’s a feeling. That is all.
So, start right now. Start allowing urges and not reacting.
Kids And Frustration
If your kids are making a mess and fighting, you may feel frustrated because you think your kids shouldn’t make messes and fight. Instead of doing the thought work and figuring out what’s really going on, you decide to eat a bunch of cookies. The cookies are a dopamine hit to your brain. It doesn’t remove the frustration but it numbs it a bit so it’s less intense.
Relationships And Spending Money
If you are stressed about a relationship, you may seek to feel better by spending money. Spending money gives you a big dopamine hit, so the pain from the relationship isn’t as bad. But when you’re done spending and the dopamine hit is gone, you’ll experience the low again. The stress will still be there.
Think of an empty glass. When you tap it with silverware, it makes a loud sound. When you fill it up with liquid, then tap it, the sound is lower; it’s softened.
Step 6: Plan Your Vices Ahead Of Time
Whenever I teach this, people ask if it’s ever a good idea to have external pleasures.
If we eat sugar to get the dopamine hit or drink wine because we falsely think it’ll make us feel better, is there ever a time where it’s a good idea to have external, false pleasures?
My answer: it’s up to you.
The point is not to stop enjoying life, eating good food, or buying things you want.
The point is to not do them to feel better.
Don’t seek external pleasures in an effort to feel better.
To do this right it means you plan out when you’re going to do these things ahead of time. You plan from your prefrontal cortex, without your emotions determining your actions.
So, decide ahead of time when you’re going to have wine. Decide how much. Decide at least 24 hours in advance.
Do this for eating unhealthy foods.
Do this for watching TV (Netflix!).
Do this for whatever other bad habit is impacting your life.
If you do this, you’ll learn how to manage your emotions so you actually have greater well-being.
One more point while we’re on the topic of pleasure…
There Is Value In Less
Less pleasure isn’t bad.
Taking away the artificial pleasure and learning how to experience your own emotions and actually coping will allow you to have a better experience of life.
Instead of the extreme highs and lows that come with negative consequences from overspending, overeating, overnetflixing, overporning (all the false pleasures), you will be steady.
Without false pleasure, you have positive and negative emotion but it’s not extreme. It’s very even. That is where you can find true well-being.
Can you imagine going to a party or restaurant and not overdrinking or overeating? But not even desiring it? And thinking it’s better?
Question whether eating food for pleasure is really part of being alive.
Question whether drinking alcohol is part of being alive.
Question whether having things and buying more is part of being alive.
Most of us think that food is enjoyable and should be.
What if food was just fuel?
When I was younger, I struggled with food. I loooooved to eat. Now, I think about it so differently. I can cut out certain categories of food or bring them in at will. It’s fun for me. I know food is just fuel.
Can you do this?
Do you want to?
What does your life look like without so much pleasure?
Step 7: Don’t Beat Yourself Up
The last step is: do not beat yourself up.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
We think that by beating ourselves up, we’re going to get the result.
But that’s not true.
Beating yourself up does nothing to help you get the result you want. In fact, it probably makes it less likely that you’ll get the result you want.
Plan for failure.
Nothing has gone wrong.
When you fail, start again.
Be kind to yourself.
A Final Note!
Here’s a recap of how to break a bad habit:
- Become aware of your bad habit
- Notice how your brain seeks pleasure, avoids pain, and aims to be efficient (the motivational triad)
- Be skeptical of how society encourages you to seek more pleasure to feel better
- Don’t trade one bad habit for another
- Practice experiencing negative emotion and allowing urges
- Plan pleasure ahead of time
- Don’t beat yourself up
This is the best way to break a bad habit because it cures the root cause of the problem.
The root cause is being able to experience negative emotion without seeking false pleasure to mask it.
If you follow these steps, you’ll break your bad habit.
If you always overeat, overdrink, over-binge on whatever else, you’ll constantly seek short term pleasure at your own long term expense.
You can experience negative emotion and have nothing negative result from it. You can be unhappy and be fine. You can feel anxious and be okay. You can feel stress and nothing will happen.
Consider what your life might be like in a very genuine, authentic way without false pleasure.
Instead of creating artificial emotions externally, what if you could learn to manage your mind and feel exactly how you want to feel without false pleasure?
External pleasure will never give you the happiness you’re seeking. It’s by removing external pleasure, going through the withdrawal, and then learning how to experience negative emotion that you can move toward true well-being.
True well-being will rock your world. You’ll have inner confidence and steadiness unlike anything else imaginable. It’s from there that you can design your dream life.
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